Paula Northwood December 8, 2019
Scripture Luke 1:26–38
One of my favorite movies is What About Bob? This ’90s comedy stars Bill Murry and Richard Dreyfuss. Murray plays Bob Wiley, an irritating patient who follows his egotistical psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin (played by Dreyfuss) on vacation. Which, of course, is very inappropriate. Through a series of events, Bob befriends the other members of Dr. Marvin’s family and gets invited to dinner. After dinner, a thunderstorm forces Bob to spend the night. He and Dr. Marvin’s young son Sigmund share a room. A noisy pillow fight ensues, and Dr. Marvin opens the bedroom door and just loses it, shouting: “I just want some peace and quiet!” Bob cowers and says, “I’ll be quiet,” and son Sigmund, with a mischievous grin, says, “I’ll be peace” (with his fingers in a V).
“I’ll be peace”—as if it were that easy. To choose to be at peace or to have peace seems elusive to most of us. Very few countries have been at peace without some conflict in the modern age. And we are no strangers to violence within our own city. The news reports each morning chronicle the latest overnight murders. Family violence seems to head the list, as we have seen recently when a father killed his wife and children and then himself. There’s no peace today in millions of American homes, as wills and values clash and personalities brush up against one another. In our world and in our community, peace is at a premium.
It was no different in the ancient world. Our scriptures chronicle violence between nations and tribes and between religious factions and families. Family violence begins with the first family mentioned in Genesis—with the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Almost every biblical character is connected to violence in some way.
It is to such a world of violence that the prophets of Israel longed for one who would bring peace to their troubled world. The nation of Judah lived under a constant threat from powerful neighbors. Peace would never come automatically. They believed it would take a great leader to bring it about, a leader who could rule the nation with justice, whose wisdom could strengthen it against its enemies. Whenever a new king came to the throne of David, hopes were high that this king would be the one, the anointed one, the Messiah, who could make the nation prosperous and secure its peace. It was perhaps at such a time, the coronation of a new young ruler, that Isaiah gave us the vision of the Prince of Peace:
The people that walked in darkness
have seen a great light
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined. . . .
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government will be upon his shoulder,
and his name will be called
“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, the Prince of Peace.”
The desire for someone from the outside to bring peace is so longed for. It reminds me of a story I heard in Jerusalem. A journalist heard about a very old Jewish man who had been going to the Wailing Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for a long, long time. So, she went to check it out. She went to the Wailing Wall and there he was! She watched him pray and after about 45 minutes, when he turned to leave, she approached him for an interview. The journalist asked, “Sir, how long have you been coming to the Wall and praying?”
“For about 60 years,” he replied.
“60 years! That’s amazing! What do you pray for?” she asked.
He responds, “I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews and the Muslims. I pray for all the hatred to stop and I pray for all our children to grow up in safety and friendship.”
She continues, “How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?”
He relies: “Like I’m talking to a fricking wall.”
We get it! We understand. As a people, as countries, we have longed for peace for our world. We write it on our holiday cards, beauty pageant contestants wish for it, politicians promise it, children pray for it. But the only way we seem to understand how to obtain peace is through violence.
If you remember our sermon series this fall about the parables of Jesus, you will remember that they were often subversive. They subverted the conventional way of seeing life and God. They undermined a world that was taken for granted by inviting us to see things anew. The writers of the nativity stories are also creating parables. They are telling a story about the Messiah, the chosen one, who brings about peace in a different way. If you remember the elements of Roman Empire Theology: religion, war, victory and peace. You worship the gods, you go to war with their help, you obtain peace through victory from violence. Peace always came about by victory through violence. The gospel Christmas story paints a different kind of scene, one of peace through surrender and nonviolence. That’s what is subversive about the Christian story.
That is why in our text for this morning, an angel comes to Mary and surprises her with an unexpected pregnancy and the possibility of peace. The writers of the gospel are working to create a Messiah who is the prince of peace. Of course, initially, I don’t think Mary responds with a peaceful demeanor. She is shocked. This can’t be happening to me! Some of us can relate to this kind of news. We have had, maybe not an angel, but some form of messenger tells us something we were not prepared to hear. How do we respond?
Did you notice the moment in our text when peace finally comes? It’s the moment of surrender when Mary says, like the Star Trek Captain Picard, “Make it so.” Peace comes with surrender. We tend to understand the word surrender with negative connotations. In wars, it means to be the loser, to give up fighting. But when surrender comes, new life has the possibility of happening. New governments can form. And so it is with our personal life: the moment we surrender to something bigger than our selves, we can experience peace. I can think of several times when I finally surrendered to forces much larger than myself. I surrendered to grief when my mother and brother died so that healing could come. I’ve surrendered to leaving a job that wasn’t right for me, and it created new possibilities. Coming to terms with my sexual orientation was a surrender to becoming all that God created me to be. It involved a great deal of loss, but I gained a freedom and peace I never imagined.
Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle puts it this way: “Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? What could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say ‘yes’ to life—and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.” Only you know what thing might be keeping you from peace this morning. Where is there resistance in your life? Where can you surrender?
Peace isn’t a “thing” that materializes all at once, out of nothing. Peace becomes a way of being in the world; it comes from a spiritual practice as we learn to surrender our self-centeredness and as we learn to let go of fear and put our trust in God. This transformation gives us a peace that passes all understanding. If you look at all spiritual teachers, they practiced the deep peace of surrender to divine wisdom.
During this season of Advent, we look to the example of Jesus, who lived a life of surrender, from the way he served others to his last moment on the cross. While on the cross, he did not fight to keep life but surrendered it into God’s hands. God’s peaceable word is then lived out by us, those who follow the teachings of Jesus. It is something we, too, are called to embody. When the young boy from the beginning story says, “I’ll be peace,” he was tapping into the deepest invitation from God. We are to be peace in a sea of turmoil.
Peace comes to us when the Prince of Peace comes to us. Of Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul said, “He is our peace.” This Christ consciousness is our peace. During Advent, we prepare to receive him afresh into our troubled world, into our church, into our families, into our own hearts. But the paradox is that the Prince of Peace is here now. For he said to us, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
The possibility of peace is in our midst, for the spirit of Jesus is here, and we can simply surrender and rest in it. He who is our peace is in our midst. This morning let us begin this spiritual practice. Let us go forth, like the angel Gabriel, and greet one another with those ancient words, so full of hope: “The peace of God be with you.” May it be so. Amen.